SINGAPORE — I remember meeting Chef Alvin Tan at Tipsy Penguin at Tampines after lunch back in 2019, feeling as if his was a face I had seen before. It took me a while to recall trying his food back at the now-shuttered contemporary Chinese cuisine restaurant, Xin Divine at Duxton Hill. The disparity of the cuisine served at Tipsy Penguin and Xin Divine was broad, to say the least. Though I did notice Alvin's penchant for full-flavoured plates served him particularly well at Tipsy Penguin, where a full kaleidoscope of flavours rues the day.
He's now a fancy Food and Beverage director for the Tipsy Collective group, charged with ensuring the impeccable consistency of the menu at all of Tipsy Collective's outfits, including its newest, Tipsy Flamingo. In this interview, I asked Alvin to ruminate on what it means to be a chef and how he envisions the future of F&B to be, given the unpredictable climate of a pandemic that we're currently in.
What does it mean for you to be a chef?
I would describe myself as a skinny but hungry chef—I’m constantly on the hunt for the latest food trend and I find a lot of joy in creating new recipes. I often tell people how fortunate I am to be able to do what I am passionate about. Most times, work doesn’t feel like work. More importantly, I get to nurture budding chefs who are in my kitchen day in and day out. They give me true fulfilment as a head chef when I see them improve in their skill set.
As a child, what did you aspire to be when you grew up and why?
I’ve always wanted to be a farmer since young. I was always curious and loved to watch how things grow and also enjoy the fruits of my labour, by eating them. Because of this, I have grown to love progress and enjoy the journey of my life even if I’ve encountered challenges and obstacles.
My advice to younger folks is not to be afraid to try out new things. It is okay not to know what you what, but it definitely helps to know what you don’t want. Start from there, and making decisions would be much easier.
What is the most significant change your culinary philosophy has undertaken in your career as a chef?
I always thought that only fresh produce could deliver the best kind of food, but having the opportunity to explore different types of ingredients made me realise that it is crucial to go deeper and understand the produce I already have in my hands.
At the end of the day, knowing the right techniques of cooking is still the best way to deliver good quality dishes. I am glad to have had the opportunity to explore different types of unassuming ingredients that blend well together to create magic. Having seen how they come together so well through my experiments, has helped me gain confidence gradually but significantly in my culinary skills. My perspective on food has changed over the years and I am glad to constantly be stepping out of my comfort zone because it challenges me to grow both professionally and personally.
What has been the hardest thing about being a chef that many people aren’t aware of?
Being a chef can sometimes lead to frustration due to very short downtime, stress, anxiety, and even unpredictable circumstances. These are all factors we can’t control in our fast-paced industry. Take this pandemic, for example, we have to learn how to pivot quickly in order to survive and thrive.
As much as chefs like me love such an adrenaline rush and it keeps us on our toes, there are times when we feel lethargic both mentally and physically. Such roller coaster rides causes disillusionments, or most commonly known as misguided calibration of our true passion and drive. As it snowballs, it will cause chefs to drift away from the real reason of why they truly enjoy culinary in the first place.
What is the one most underrated cooking technique chefs should use more often and why?
Food fermentation. They are incredibly beneficial to our health and contain so many nutrients. The unpredictability of the flavours produced from this technique provides inspiration to modern cuisines and brings us back to home-cooked food such as belachan.
Belachan brings a unique set of flavour profiles to any dish as a whole, and I am so glad to have found my own recipe for it.
What do you think the future of F&B looks like in Singapore?
I feel that moving forward it will get even more challenging for the F&B industry. This is because there are so many marketing strategies, expectations, and channels for chefs to consider. We can no longer just be skilled in the kitchen. Chefs will also need to follow the latest trends and eventually be a trendsetter. This is something that has taken over the identity of a chef.
Furthermore, to be at the forefront of the F&B industry, we must recognise and be ahead of the different digital platforms to inform our customers about our latest offerings and more. We can no longer just rely on word of mouth.
When you look at the state of dining in Singapore today, what is the one thing that gives you hope?
One thing that gives me hope in the current state of Singapore’s dining scene is knowing that there are many hidden talents amongst us. Through this pandemic, we have seen a huge increase in home-based businesses/ I feel that this will inspire our next generation to have the courage to take a step towards cultivating their skill set and perhaps even start their own brick and mortar businesses some day. I can’t wait to see the creations they bring to the table.